plied), 107, 129â“30; IV, 389â“91.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 137
believe any mortal man since chivalry was ď¬rst established has done such marvellous
deeds as he did today.
He explains explicitly what these marvels were:
I could recount more than a thousand ď¬ne blows, for I followed that knight every step
to witness the marvellous deeds he did; I saw him kill ď¬ve knights and ď¬ve men-at-arms
with ď¬ve blows so swift that he nearly cut horses and knights in two. As for my own
experience, I can tell you he split my shield in two, cleaved my saddle and cut my horse
in half at the shoulders, all with a single blow. . . . I saw him kill four knights with one
thrust of his lance . . . if it were up to me, heâ™d never leave me. Iâ™d keep him with me
always, because I couldnâ™t hold a richer treasure.48
In a tournament at Camelot (ď¬ghting, by Guinevereâ™s wish, against the
proud knights of the Round Table), Lancelot again displays his prowess:
Lancelot put his hand upon his good sword, striking left and right like a man to whom
it was more natural than a raptor pursuing its prey. He began killing knights and horses
and striking down whatever he met in his way. . . .
Then were the great marvels of his prowess, which had been testiď¬ed to in many
places, shown to be true, for he split knights and horses and heads and arms and lances
and shields, and beat down knights to the right and left; he did so much in so little time
that all those who had been pursuing others stopped on his account . . . to watch him
and see the marvels he performed.49
Other heroes perform wonders of prowess, highly praised as the essence of
chivalry. The Mort Artu refers repeatedly to acts of prowess as â˜deeds of
chivalryâ™ or â˜feats of chivalryâ™; the link between the two is often apparent.50
Once he has seen Morholt defeat Yvain, in the Merlin Continuation, Gawain
almost foams with praise: â˜Oh, God! what greatness there is in a valiant man!
God, how powerful this man is; how effective he is, and how much he can do!
God! what a fool and how guilty of excess would he be who pressed such a
man to battle, unless he had a good reason!â™51
Hector does so well in the war against Claudas that Gawain looks on with
Hector threw down his shield, took his sword with both hands and began to slay
knights and horses and clear the space around him so wondrously that there was no one
so bold as to dare to put out a hand to stop him. Looking at him Sir Gawain said to
himself, â˜My God, what a knight we have here! Who would have thought that such a
young man had such prowess in him?â™52
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 161â“2; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 198â“9.
Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 197; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 359â“60.
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 36, 139; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 17, 144.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 272; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 374â“5.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 303; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 96â“97.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
In the seemingly endless battles with the Saxons the Round Table knightsâ™
prowess is constantly praised: â˜open displays of knightly prowess could be seen
by allâ™, we learn; Arthurâ™s men â˜slaughtered knights and horses, they sent
shields ď¬‚ying from necks and helmets from heads, they chopped off feet and
hands and they did such wonders that scarcely anyone could believe the great
slaughter of the Saxons they didâ™. Merlin enthusiastically promises them more
of the same, in words that almost deď¬ne prowess: â˜Today weâ™ll see who has
prowess in him. Today weâ™ll see who can ď¬ght boldly with sword and lance.
Today the great and worthy knighthood of the Kingdom of Logres [literally,
â˜the great acts of prowess of the Kingdom of Logresâ™, â˜les grans proesces del
roialme de Logresâ™] will be displayed.â™53
Even Galahad, for all his spiritual qualities, attracts similar eulogies. Arthur
the Less, wonders at the â˜great prodigiesâ™ performed by Galahad in battle
against King Markâ™s knights, for, the text says, â˜he reached no knight, no mat-
ter how well armed, whom he did not lay on the ground dead or mortally
wounded or crippledâ™. Such work elicits fulsome praise from Arthur the Less:
Oh God! What can I say of this man? By my faith, no mortal man could do what heâ™s
doing. Truly, all the other knights in the world are nothing compared to him, for if
everyone else in the world were a knight and he faced them all in one place, I think he
would defeat them all, for it doesnâ™t seem to me, from what Iâ™ve seen, that he could
grow weary from striking during the lifetime of one man. Now may I have ill fortune
if I donâ™t from now on call him the best of all those who now bear arms, for I see well
that he deserves it.54
Prowess was thought to bring other qualities in its train (as we will see), and
these qualities may have more appeal for most modern readers than prowess
itself;55 but we will radically misunderstand the medieval view and the
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 386, 387, Sommer, ed. Vulgate Version, II, 397â“8. The phrase
about open displays of knightly prowess, reads, â˜si peust on ueoir apertes cheualeries faire
darmesâ™. Even the voluble Parrot in the Knight of the Parrot sings praises for the â˜chivalriesâ™
Arthur has â˜doneâ™. Vesce, Knight of the Parrot, 54; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du Papegau, 52.
Physical strength may take forms modern readers (incorrectly) suspect are parodic. William of
Orange struts with such vigour in the royal hall (in the Charroi de NĂ®mes) that he bursts the
uppers of his Cordovan leather boots. He similarly leans on his bow with such vigour that it
shatters. Price, tr., The Waggon Train, 62â“3; McMillan, ed., Charroi de NĂ®mes, 61, 64. In the
Chanson de Guillaume even his vigour in eating shows he is a man of prowess; the Saracens eat
men like ripe apples: Muir, tr., Song of William, 152, 159, 165, 193; Suard, ed., Chanson de
Guillaume, 72, 94, 113, 198.
Asher, tr., â˜Questâ™, 246. A few pages earlier Galahad has â˜struck to the left and right and killed
all those he reached, and he performed so many marvels among them that no one who saw him
would have thought him mortal man but some strange marvelâ™: p. 237.
The â˜worthy manâ™ tells Arthur: â˜no one recognizes a man of worth so well as a man rooted in
great prowessâ™: Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 242; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 287. Hervi
of Rivel, attending at Arthurâ™s table when a monk comes with messages from the queens of
Gaunes and Benoic, tells Arthur that the man is trustworthy, as a former knight of prowess:
The Privileged Practice of Violence 139
medieval reality if we push the bloody, sweaty, muscular work done with lance
and sword swiftly and antiseptically to the side and hasten on to speak of more
abstract, more appealing qualities. What is at issue is less a set of idealized
abstractions than what Malory called â˜dedys full actuallâ™. Such deeds leave
combatants â˜waggyng, staggerynge, pantyng, blowyng, and bledyngâ™.56
But is this all merely literary artiď¬ce? Did knights actually hack so heroically
and endure so resolutely? Historical accounts, it is true, do not generally fol-
low lance thrusts and sword strokes in anatomical detail; in the confusion of
most battles it could scarcely have been possible. Usually they praise heroes
more simply by enumerating foes slain.57
Yet time and again a chronicler or biographer assures us he wants to record
the great deeds of his subjects, just as a writer of chanson or romance might. No
less than imaginative literary texts, historical sources show us single great men
turning the tide of battle by their prowess, cutting paths through their ene-
mies, who fall back in stunned fear. Perhaps this is not merely ď¬‚attery and
topos; given relatively small numbers, close ď¬ghting with edged weapons, and
the sudden surges or panics so often described, one unusual man might well
tilt the balance.
In the pages of the biography of William Marshal chivalry often becomes
prowess pure and simple. At the siege of Winchester, for example, we are
told that groups of knights sallied forth each day â˜to do chivalry (por faire
chevalerie)â™.58 The knight can do chivalry just as he can make love: it has this
My lord, believe whatever this man tells you, for kings and princes should heed his words. Be assured that with
his great courage and prowess he so far outshone any other knight in Godâ™s creation that in dire need I would
conď¬dently have turned to him to defend my honour and preserve my head.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 25; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 55; Sommer, ed., Vulgate
Version, III, 46.
56 Vinaver, ed., Malory.Works, 23, 198. John Barbourâ™s chronicle has men at least â˜stabbing,
stocking and strikingâ™: McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbourâ™s Bruce, bk. XVII, l. 785. Maloryâ™s
characters describe ď¬erce ď¬ghting as â˜noble knyghthodeâ™: Vinaver, Malory.Works, 277. Sir Kay cites
prowess as the quality that earns Gawain a seat at the Round Table: â˜He is beste worthy to be a
knyght of the Rounde Table of ony that is rehersed yet and he had done no more prouesse his lyve
dayesâ™: ibid., 80. Tristram thinks himself unworthy to be a knight of the Round Table until his
â˜dedysâ™ win him a place: ibid., 300. Unhorsing Kay and matching Lancelot allows the young
Gareth similarly to believe he can â˜stonde a preved knightâ™: ibid., 181. Blamour fears Tristram â˜May
happyn to smyte me downe with his grete myght of chevalryâ™: ibid., 253. Sir Darras, whose three
sons Tristan did â˜smyte downeâ™, agrees Tristan acted â˜by fors of knyghthodeâ™: ibid., 338. Lionel
defeats and kills Calogrenant who tries to intervene in his ď¬ght with Bors, â˜for thys sir Lyonell was
of grete chevalry and passing hardyâ™: ibid., 575.
57 The chronicler of Richard the Lion-Heartâ™s crusade praises Geoffrey of Lusignan as a
successor to Roland and Oliver for despatching ten Muslims with an axe at the siege of Acre:
Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris, Lâ™Histoire de la guerre
sainte, ll. 4662â“70.
58 Meyer, ed., Histoire, I, l. 176; my italics. As Burgess points out, this phrase appears frequently
in twelfth-century Old French imaginative literature with just the meaning suggested here: â˜The
Term âChevalerieâ â™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
dimension as a physical process. At the battle of Lincoln, writes the biogra-
pher, the French did not have to look far to â˜ď¬nd chivalryâ™, the quality here
again clearly equated with prowess on the battleď¬eld. Knighting the young
king, the eldest son of Henry II, William asks God to grant him prowess and
to keep him in honour and high dignity. We are also told that it was right for
William to be the â˜masterâ™ of the young king while he prepared for this day
because William increased his pupilâ™s prowess.59
Most readers of Marshalâ™s biography, however, will better remember the
vivid visual evidence of prowess. In the classic instance William receives the
news that he has won a tournament with his head on the blacksmithâ™s anvil
where the deep dents in his helmet are being sufď¬ciently hammered out to
allow him ď¬nally to pull the battered iron off his head.60
If Geoffroi de Charny knew this story (more than a century later), he must
have laughed in hearty approval. In his Livre de chevalerie this renowned knight
lauds prowess unceasingly and urges his contemporaries to invest their lives
and their bodies in the honourable following of arms, in individual jousts, in
tournaments, and above all in war. â˜For I maintainâ™, Charny writes, â˜that there
are no small feats of arms, but only good and great ones, although some feats
of arms are of greater worth than others.â™61
Describing the battle of Methven (1306), John Barbour says Bruceâ™s men
â˜Schewyt thar gret chewalry (showed their great chivalry)â™; they â˜swappyt owt
swerdis sturdyly / And swa fell strakys gave and tuk / Yat all ye rank about
yaim quouk (They whipped out swords boldly and gave and took such griev-
ous strokes that all the ground around them shook.â™62
Such sword blows are highly prized. Gerald of Wales obviously esteems the
knight Meiler Fitz Henryâ™s ď¬ghting against the Irish:
[S]urrounded by the enemy on every side, [he] drew his sword and charging the band,
boldly cut his way through them, chopping here a hand and there an arm, besides hew-
ing through heads and shoulders and thus rejoined his friends on the plain unhurt,
though he brought away three Irish spears stuck in his horse, and two in his shield.
He states explicitly the value he ď¬nds in John de Courcy: â˜He who had seen
how John of Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads,
and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant
Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 16830â“3, I, 2088â“9, 2635â“6. Ibid., I, ll. 3101â“44.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 86â“7; Charnyâ™s ideas are explored in detail in this
work. cf. Chapter 13, below.
McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbourâ™s Bruce, bk. II, 366â“8.
Wright, ed., tr., Historical Works, 256, 279. In Welsh border ď¬ghting, a recipient of such a
blow, Ranulf Poer, sheriff of Herefordshire, is cut through the windpipe and veins of the neck and
only manages by signs to summon a priest before he dies: p. 369.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 141
Richard the Lion-Heart regularly chops his enemiesâ™ skulls down to the
teeth.64 Richard Marshal (second son of the famous William) with one mighty
stroke cut off both hands of the man reaching for his helmet in a close
encounter. With an even mightier blow he cut a knight down to the navel.65
Finding a young clerk who has taken revenge on three royal serjeants who
robbed himâ”piercing one with a crossbow bolt, with a sword cutting the leg
off the second, and splitting the head of the third to the teethâ”Louis IX takes
the young man into his service â˜pour vostre proesceâ™, though he tells him such
prowess has closed off the road to the priesthood.66 Joinville, who tells the
story, later admires three ď¬ne blows delivered by a Genoese knight in an expe-
dition to Jaffa: one enemy is run through with a lance, oneâ™s turbaned head is
sent ď¬‚ying off into the ď¬eld, one lance-wielding enemy arm is cut off with a
swift back-handed sword stroke, after dodging the foeâ™s lance.67 Lancelot
could scarcely have done better. Robert Bruce, we learn, could hack off an
arm, or arm and shoulder, or ear, cheek, and shoulder at a single sword
If Robert Bruceâ™s most noted feat of prowess was to split the head of Henry
de Bohun at the opening of the battle of Bannockburn, he also defended a nar-
row river ford alone, against a large body of English knights who could only
come at him singly.69 â˜Strang wtrageous curage he hadâ™, Barbour proclaims
proudly, as the number of bodies in the water mounts; after Bruce has killed
six men, the English hesitate, until exhorted by one of their knights who
shouts that they must redeem their honour and that Bruce cannot last. Yet he
does. When his own men ď¬nally appear, they count fourteen slain. Barbour
breaks into fulsome praise:
A der God quha had yen bene by
& sene hove he sa hardyly
Adressyt hym agane yaim all
I wate weile yat yai suld him call
Ye best yat levyt in his day.69
Many examples in Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris,
Lâ™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
Described in Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 1â“2. The chronicle of the crusade of Richard the
Lion-Heart tells of a knight whose right hand is cut off in battle; he is praised for shifting his sword
to his left hand and ď¬ghting on: Hubert and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 5777â“86;
Gaston Paris, Lâ™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
Wailly, ed., Joinville, 50â“2. The good king has a second motive, as he explains: he will never
support royal ofď¬cials in evildoing.
McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbourâ™s Bruce, bk. III, ll. 114â“5; bk. VI, 625â“31, 644.
Ibid., bk. XII, ll. 51â“61. The blow was delivered by axe rather than sword.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
(Dear God! Whoever had been there and seen how he stoutly set himself against them
all, I know well he would call him the best alive in his day.)70
Here, two centuries earlier, is Richard the Lion-Heart in action while on
Never did man such mighty deeds;
He charged among the miscreant breed
So deep that he was hid from sight . . .
Forward and back he hewed a swath
About him, cutting deadly path
With his good sword, whose might was such
That everything that it could touch,
Or man or horse, was overthrown
And to the earth was battered down.
I think â˜twas there he severed
At one stroke both the arm and head
Of an emir, an inď¬del
Steel-clad, whom he sent straight to hell,
And when the Turks perceived this blow,
They made broad path before him.71
Froissart gives us Sir Robert Salle, confronted outside Norwich by English
rebels in 1381, who want to force him to be their military leader. His refusal
leads to mortal combat:
[Sir Robert] drew a long Bordeaux sword which he carried, and began cutting and
thrusting all around him, a lovely sight to see. Few dared to come near him, and of
those who did he cut off a foot or a head or an arm or a leg with every stroke he made.
Even the boldest of them grew afraid of him. On that spot Sir Robert gave a marvel-
lous display of swordsmanship. He was himself overwhelmed soon, however, and dis-
The biographer of Don Pero NiĂ±o records his heroâ™s ď¬ght with a famous
opponent named Gomez Domao, who used his shield so well that no dis-
abling blow could reach him, and who returned such blows that Pero reported
McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbourâ™s Bruce, bk. VI, ll. 67â“180; l. 315 notes that fourteen
were slain â˜with his handâ™.
Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 605â“26; Gaston Paris, ed.,
Lâ™Histoire de la guerre sainte. Cf. ll. 6478â“530, or ll. 7349â“61, where Richard â˜cut and smote and
smashed / Through them, then turned about, and slashed / And sheared off arm and hand
and head. / Like animals they turned and ď¬‚ed. / But many could not ď¬‚ee.â™ The author (ll.
10453â“66) assures his readers he is not ď¬‚attering; an entire throng witnessed Richardâ™s blows, split-
ting his enemies to their teeth with his brand of steel. In ll. 10494â“8 we learn the crusading knights
â˜lopped off hands and heads and feet, / Split eyes and mouths with many a wound.â™
Brereton, tr., Froissart, 222â“4.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 143
later that sparks ď¬‚ew from his eyes when they struck his helmet. Finally, the
great Castilian knight â˜struck Gomez so hard above the shield, that he split it
for a hands-breadth and his head down to the eyes; and that was the end of
Gomez Domaoâ™. Pero went forward later in that ď¬ght with lance stubs in his
shield, an arrow binding his neck to his armour, and a crossbow bolt lodged
in his nostrils (driven deeper by sword blows that struck it in the close ď¬ght-
ing). His shield was cut to bits, his sword blade was notched like a saw and
dyed with blood. â˜And well do I think that until that day Pero NiĂ±o never had
been able to glut himself in an hour with the toil he craved.â™73
In fact, both imaginative literature and the historical accounts of their lives
picture knights enjoying a privileged practice of violence; it suggests that they
found in their exhilarating and fulď¬lling ď¬ghting the key to identity.74 It would
otherwise be hard to explain the thousands of individual combats and mass
engagements that ď¬ll page after page in each major category of chivalric litera-
ture: chanson de geste, romance, vernacular manual, chivalric biography, chron-
icle. Marc Bloch called these interminable combats â˜eloquent psychological
documentsâ™.75 Clearly, the personal capacity to beat another man through the
accepted method of knightly battleâ”in fact the actual physical process of
knocking another knight off his horse and, if required, hacking him down to
the point of submission or deathâ”appears time and again as something like
the ultimate human quality; it operates in men as a gift of God, it gives mean-
ing to life, reveals the presence of the other desired qualities, wins the love of
the most desirable women, determines status and worth, and binds the best
males together in a fellowship of the elect. Many writers also recognized it as
a power akin to ď¬re: if noble, necessary, and useful, such violence requires
much care and control.
The ideal chivalric ď¬gure is not, of course, a latter-day Viking berserker, dri-
ven by what modern evaluation might call overactive glands or psychopathic
personality. Granted, Arthurian society might well have recognized such a
comparison in Sagremore the Unruly, but he surely stands at the rough end of
the scale. When he is imprisoned, in the Lancelot, his captor, the lord of the
Castle of the Narrow March, admits that he released him lest Sagremore â˜go
Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 36â“8. In a later battle he splits the iron cap and skull of
a knight who grabs his horseâ™s reins. From this battle he sent his notched sword, â˜twisted by dint
of striking mighty blows, and all dyed in bloodâ™ to his ladylove: pp. 195, 196.
Chivalry regularly means either deeds of prowess or the body of knights on some ď¬eld in
both Barbourâ™s chronicle and Sir Thomas Grayâ™s chronicle: Maxwell, tr., Scalacronica; McDiarmid
and Stevenson, Barbourâ™s Bruce. Pope and Lodge, eds, Life of the Black Prince, note that the empha-
sis of the work is on prowess and piety. Keen notes that to the combatant in the Hundred Years
War â˜[t]he ius militare meant . . . the law of chivalry . . . the law of a certain privileged class, whose
hereditary occupation was ď¬ghtingâ™: Laws of War, 19.
Bloch, SociĂ©tĂ© FĂ©odale, II, 294.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
mad because he is in an enclosed place, and he wanted to engage in battle and
ď¬ght with my knightsâ™. Sagremore is justly called the Unruly, this lord says, â˜for
he showed no trace of reason in what he did, and never in all my life have I seen
a single knight perform as many feats of arms as he didâ™. He was, the text
announces, â˜never much of a knight nor very conď¬dent until he was thor-
oughly worked up. Then he feared nothing and gave no thought to himself.â™76
In Merlin Continuation he is characterized as â˜a very good knight and so unruly
when he was upset that his chivalry was highly esteemedâ™.77
Yet even if we grant that the knights are so much more than berserkers, there
is, nevertheless, behind great prowess an element of rage and sheer battle fury.
It is hard to imagine the one without the other. We can, of course, see this not
only in such ambivalent ď¬gures as Raoul de Cambrai, but in great idols such as
Lancelot and the other Round Table knights. To read much chivalric literature
is to ď¬nd admired knights regularly feeling rage as they ď¬ght; their blood boils;
when honour is challenged, they nearly lose their minds.78 As the tournament
held to celebrate Arthurâ™s wedding becomes more heated, Gawain can scarcely
be stopped, â˜for he was hot with anger and bent on inď¬‚icting painâ™.79 In battle
against the Irish and Saxons, â˜Lancelotâ™s prowess was demonstrated, for he cut
through Saxons and Irishmen, horses and heads, shields and legs and armsâ™.
The author tells us â˜[h]e resembled an angry lion that plunges among the does,
not because of any great hunger it might have, but in order to show off its
ferocity and its power.â™ Lionel tries to restrain him, asking, the most pragmatic
questions about prowess: â˜Do you wish to get yourself killed in a spot where
you can perform no act of prowess? And even if you did perform some act of
prowess, it would never be known. Havenâ™t you done enough?â™ At this sug-
gestion of restraint Lancelot threatens Lionel with â˜some harmâ™, and is ď¬nally
stopped only by an admonition in the name of the queen.80
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 187, 210; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 448â“9, 506.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 51; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift, 131â“2: â˜moult a prisier de
E.g. William of Orange and his opponents in Hoggan, tr., â˜Crowning of Louisâ™, 39, 40, 43,
53; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 86, 87, 94, 113. Raoul feels â˜all his blood boilâ™, is â˜unbri-
dled in his wrathâ™, goes â˜mad with angerâ™, and burns nuns in a â˜rageâ™, etc. (examples in Kay, ed.,
tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses 32, 62, 68). Lancelot feels rage in his ď¬rst tournament: Rosenberg,
tr., Lancelot Part I, 95; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, 231. Lancelot and even Galahad feel rage
as they ď¬ght each other, incognito, just to test prowess: Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 92â“3; Nitze and
Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 140â“1.
79 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 336; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 307.
80 Carrol, Lancelot Part II, 234â“5; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VIII, 469â“474. Yvain tells him he
should not have gone on: â˜doing so would not have been boldness, but rather follyâ™. Yvain simi-
larly holds back the impetuous Lancelot, at the time of Gawainâ™s capture by Caradoc, swearing,
â˜By the Holy Cross, my lord! You canâ™t go ahead like that! You mustnâ™t rush in so wildly to show
your prowess! It would be a lost cause. . . . Prowess should be shown only where it can work!â™
Rosenberg, Lancelot, Part III, 281; Micha, Lancelot I, 178â“9.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 145
Rage in battle is not limited to imaginative literature. Joinville describes the
Comte dâ™Anjou as mad with rage during a ď¬ght along the Nile on St Louisâ™s
crusade.81 The Chandos Heraldâ™s Life of the Black Prince tells of Sir William
Felton charging into action â˜come home sanz sens et sanz avis, a chevall la lance
baissieâ™.82 John Barbour reports that at Bannockburn the Scots fought as if in
a rage, â˜as men out of witâ™. He describes Sir Thomas Murray, a Bruce sup-
porter, ď¬ghting in Ireland â˜as he war in a rageâ™. Robert Bruce, to the contrary,
managed to use reason to control such impulses, inherent in chivalry: â˜And
with wyt his chewelry / He gouernyt . . . worthily.â™83 Froissart says that when
Philip VI saw the English in battle formation at CrĂ©cy, â˜his blood boiled, for
he hated themâ™.84 Saladin, in Richard the Lion-Heartâ™s crusade chronicle, is
pictured admiring his opponent, but exclaiming,
With what rashness doth he ď¬‚ing
Himself! Howeâ™er great prince I be,
I should prefer to have in me
Reason and measure and largesse
Than courage carried to excess.85
The frequent praise of mesure, restraint, balance, and reason in all forms of
chivalric literature can surely be read as countering a tendency that was real,
and dangerous. At a minimum, we know that knights in historical combat fre-
quently found it hard to restrain themselves and sought release in impetuous
charges, disregarding some commanderâ™s plan and strict orders.86
Wailly, Joinville, 88. Joinville was grateful that the man was â˜hors dou sensâ™ and â˜courouciezâ™,
because his actions spared Joinville and others.
82 Pope and Lodge, The Black Prince, 84â“5.
83 McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbourâ™s Bruce, III, bk. XIII, l. 143; bk. XVI, l. 199; bk. IX, ll.
373â“6. The association of chivalry with a mental state requiring governance is notable. McKim,
â˜Ideal of Knighthoodâ™, emphasizes Barbourâ™s deliberate contrast between the mesure of James
Douglas as ideal knight and the foolhardiness that cost Edward Bruce victories and, ď¬nally, his life.
84 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 88.
85 Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 12146â“52; Gaston Paris, ed.,
Lâ™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
On Richard Iâ™s crusade two knights, despite his careful plan for counterattack, cannot take
the ignominy of enduring provocative attacks from the Muslims; they charge the enemy and bring
about a general assault, joined by the Bishop of Beauvais. The resulting ď¬ght, with lances through
bodies, could almost come from the Song of Roland: see ll. 6421â“60 in Hubert tr., and La Monte,
Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris, Lâ™Histoire de la guerre sainte. A Templar similarly
breaks ranks and puts his lance through an enemyâ™s body. The author says his chivalry made him
do this: ll. 9906â“46. Miles de Cogan, who cannot stand the delay during a parley over the fate of
Dublin, leads an attack which takes the city, along with much loot: Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot,
ll. 1674â“711. Joinville tells a number of such stories of impetuosity from the crusade of Louis IX,
including one in which the Master of the Temple cries out, â˜For Godâ™s sake, letâ™s get at them! I
canâ™t stand it any longer!â™ His charge provokes a general action unintended by the French king:
Wailly, ed., Joinville, 78. Froissart says the royal plan of battle at CrĂ©cy could not be carried out
because French lords wanted no restraint and pressed forward to show their power: Brereton,
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
All this violence was effected by a knightâ™s own skilled hands; chivalry was
not simply a species of ofď¬cership more distanced from the bloody work with
swords and spears. This is no argument that the medievals knew no general-
ship; we have been taught how skilfully medieval knights could carry out
impressive tactical and strategic plans.87 But we must also note that chivalric
literature emphasizes personal might, courage, and skill in hand-to-hand
Summing up hundreds of years of this tradition, Malory refers time and
again to the wondrous work done by his knightsâ™ hands, ď¬rmly gripping their
weapons.89 We are assured that Lancelot has won Joyeuse Garde, his refuge,
â˜with his owne hondisâ™, that Arthur â˜was emperor himself through dignity of
his handsâ™, that he awaits a tournament where â˜[the knights] shall . . . preve
whoo shall be beste of his hondisâ™. We hear Outelake of Wentelonde proudly
stating his claim to a lady: â˜thys lady I gate be my prouesse of hondis and armys
thys day at Arthurs courtâ™. Such hands wield a lance or sword well. Seeing
King Pellinore cut Outelake down to the chin with a single sword stroke,
Meliot de Logurs declines to ď¬ght â˜with such a knyght of prouesâ™.90
Chronicle and biography speak the same language and show the same
emphasis. John Barbour praises Edward Bruce as â˜off [of ] his hand a nobill
knychtâ™, and assures us that Robert Bruce slew all the fourteen Englishmen at
the ford, noted above, â˜vif [with] his handâ™.91 In his ď¬rst ď¬ght Don Pero NiĂ±o,
as his biographer tells us, â˜accomplished so many fair feats with his hands that
See Gillingham: â˜Richard Iâ™; â˜War and Chivalryâ™; and â˜William the Bastardâ™.
Gerald of Wales is capable of clearly distinguishing between personal, knightly valour and
generalship. For his description of these qualities in John de Courcy, see Wright, tr., Historical
Works, 281, 318.
89 Many other writers could be cited widely. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation a poor
knight asking a ladyâ™s hand of her father, promises that â˜If in one day I canâ™t bring . . . ten knights
to defeat with my own hands, and you afterwardsâ”all knights renowned for prowessâ”I donâ™t want
you to consider me a knight.â™ Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 64; Bogdanow, ed., â˜Folie
Lancelotâ™, 33; emphasis supplied. Inverse casesâ”fears of the work done by knightsâ™ handsâ” like-
wise appear in this work; see Asher, ibid., 100; Bogdanow, ibid., 127.
90 The examples in Malory almost defy citation. Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, 415â“16, 111, 72â“3.
Malory draws on long-held belief. The vast Vulgate cycle, written more than two centuries earlier,
repeatedly emphasizes hands-on prowess. Lancelot, learning of the defeat of so many Arthurian
knights at the Forbidden Hill, declares, â˜he who defeated them can truly say that there is great
prowess in him, if he defeated them with his own hands.â™ Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 232; Micha,
ed., Lancelot, V, 96. There is a similar statement from Lambegue in Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV,
71; Micha, Lancelot, I, 260. In a later crisis Guerrehetâ™s valour saved the day, â˜for he killed four of
them with his own hands and wounded six, including the ď¬rst whose arm he had severedâ™: Kibler,
tr., Lancelot Part V, 118; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 21. In the Middle English William of Palerne, the hero
in his ď¬rst battle does wonders â˜wit his owne hondâ™, killing six prominent enemies and overcom-
ing the enemy leader: Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 1195, 1230â“54. In the Alliterative Morte
Arthure (Benson, ed., tr., 52), Arthur greets Cador after a battle with the words, â˜You have done
well, Sir duke, with your two hands.â™
McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbourâ™s Bruce, II, bk. IX, l. 486; bk. VI, l. 313.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 147
all spoke well of himâ™. The biographer is proud that â˜none did so much with
their hands as heâ™.92
This hands-on work of chivalry was very bloody. The young Arthurian
heroes in The Story of Merlin (Sagremore, Galescalin, Agravain, Gaheriet,
Guerrehet) have fought so well in a battle against the Saxons â˜that their arms
and legs and the heads and manes of their horses were dripping with blood and
goreâ™. They are described as having done â˜many a beautiful deed of knighthood
[mainte bele cheualier] and struck many a handsome blow, for which everyone
should hold them in high esteemâ™.93
Similarly, in his biographical chronicle John Barbour stresses the bloody
character of such ď¬ghting: grass red with blood, swords bloody to the hilt,
heraldic devices on armour so smeared with blood they cannot be read.94
Gerald of Wales unforgettably characterized Richard I of England as not only
â˜ď¬erce in his encounters in armsâ™, but â˜only happy when he marked his steps
with bloodâ™.95 The historian of the Lion-Heartâ™s crusade more than once
records Richard hewing off enemy heads and displaying them as trophies, or
riding into camp after a night of skirmishing with more Muslim heads hang-
ing from his saddle.96 Such trophies were not limited to crusading; after the
bloody battle of Evesham in the English civil war of Henry IIIâ™s reign, the
head and testicles of the defeated Simon de Montfort were sent as a gift to
The incident might not be too gruesome for romance. A maiden whose
rights Bors defends in Lancelot has given him a white banner to attach to his
lance. After combat with her enemy, Bors â˜saw that the banner which had been
white before, was scarlet with blood, and he was overjoyedâ™. A little later in the
same text an opponent evaluates Sagremore in revealing terms:
He noticed that his shield had been completely destroyed by lances and swords, and he
saw that his hauberk was broken in several spots; he looked at Sagremore himself,
bloodied with his own blood and with the blood of others. He had great respect for
him, for he thought no knight deserving of greater esteem.98
Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 30.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 268; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 185. Heroes are so covered
by gore that their heraldic devices can scarcely be recognized.
McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbourâ™s Bruce, bk. II, 366â“70; bk. X, l. 687; bk. XIII, ll. 183â“5.
Wright, ed., Historical Works, 160.
Ll. 7439â“40, 8964â“79 in Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston
Paris, Lâ™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
Maddicott, Simon de Montfort, 344.
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 42â“3, 78; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 148â“9, 291. For a parallel case
to the bloody banner in a Middle English text (Blanchardyn and Eglentine), see Gist, Love and War,
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
An old hermit who is a former knight tells Yvain (in the Lancelot) that the cus-
tom at Uther Pendragonâ™s court was that no knight could be seated unless he
had been wounded.99
Even Lancelotâ™s great workâ”often powered by his love for the queenâ”
necessarily involves hacking and chopping, great bloodshed, frequent decapi-
tations, and regular eviscerations. He was ď¬lled with rage as he rescues a
maiden from other knights:
[Lancelot] struck the head off one, who fell dead to the ground; he took aim at another
and struck him dead. When the others saw this they were afraid of being killed them-
selves and scattered this way and that to save their lives. Lancelot pursued them, hack-
ing and eviscerating and slaying them as if they were dumb animals; behind him were
the somber traces of more than twenty slaughtered men.100
Hector and Perceval, who meet and (as is so often true of knights in chivalric
literature) fail to recognize each other, fall at once to combat:
At every moment they were so quick and so aggressive that it was a wonder to behold;
in great anguish they endured great and terrible wounds that each inď¬‚icted on the other
in quick succession, like knights of great prowess, hacking apart their shields and hel-
mets with their swords and making the blood gush forth on every side.101
It is worth remembering that no great cause, no great love, is at stake in this
ď¬ght; the knights meet in the woods; they ď¬ght. So near to death are they both
brought that only the appearance of the Grail preserves their lives.
Given its centrality, such prowess must get an early start in the young
knightâ™s career.102 Accounts of youthful origins of heroes stress just this pre-
cocious display of commendable violence, a harbinger of things to come. In
the Chanson de Aspremont the young Roland and his companions, kept from
battle by an overly solicitous Charlemagne, severely beat the porter guarding
the door of their chamber, and escape. They acquire the horses they need by
beating up the keepers who conduct them to the battleď¬eld. Roland encour-
ages the others: â˜Young Roland says: âWeâ™ll have these fourâ”come on! / Nor
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 174; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 248. Here, one of the occasional
notes of ambiguity can be heard, for he adds that the custom was ended in Arthurâ™s day, but
replaced by one equally â˜unpleasantâ™â”that no knight be seated at a high feast who has not sworn
on relics that he has defeated a knight â˜by deeds of armsâ™ within the past week.
Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 191; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 328.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 327; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 200â“1.
For overviews of education in arms, see Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 181â“91; Chris
Given-Wilson, English Nobility, 2â“7. Patterson notes that â˜The biographers of both du Guesclin
and Boucicaut stress the violence of their heroesâ™ enfances as evidence of their single-mindednessâ™:
Chaucer, 176. On the other hand, the education proposed for the knight by Christine de Pisan in
Lâ™EpĂ®tre dâ™OthĂ©a Ă Hector, as Willard notes, was â˜moral rather than militaryâ™: â˜Christine de Pisanâ™,
The Privileged Practice of Violence 149
shall we ask them ď¬rst for what we want!â / His friends reply: âWith the bless-
ing of God!â â™ When the news comes to King Salemon, the owner of the
horses, that the lads have â˜killedâ™ the porter, stolen the horses, and beaten his
men, he laughs in warm appreciation of their valour.103
Rainouart, another hero of chanson, was angered as a boy by a beating from
his tutor; he responded by hitting the man so hard that his heart burst.104 A
tutor who fails to appreciate noble largesse and â˜who wished to dominate himâ™
likewise causes the young Lancelot trouble in the Lancelot do Lac. Lancelot
endures his slap in brave silence, but when the tutor strikes a greyhound he has
just received, he breaks his bow into pieces over the manâ™s head. Angered at
the man for his broken bow, he then beats him soundly and tries to kill the
tutorâ™s helpers; they all run for safety. When he tells his patroness, the Lady of
the Lake, that he will kill the tutor anywhere but in her household, â˜she was
delighted, for she saw that he could not fail to be a man of valour, with Godâ™s
help and her ownâ™.105 But the most striking case of early promise of prowess
comes from Tristram, in Maloryâ™s tale. Tristramâ™s mother, dying as he is born,
says he is a young murderer and thus is likely to be a manly adult.106
This obsession with prowess stands behind the seemingly numberless tests the
chivalrous undergo in this literature to determine who is the best knight in the
world. Marvellous swords can be grasped, or pulled from a stone, or drawn
from a wondrous scabbard only by the best knight in the world. Shields may
only be borne by, beds may only serve the ď¬nest knight in the world. We even
learn of a magical chess board which defeats all but Lancelot.107
But the supreme honour of being the best is determined primarily by ď¬ght-
ing everyone else who wants that same honour. Anthropologists and histori-
ans regularly conclude that any society animated by a code of honour will be
highly competitive; it will much value the defence of cherished rights and the
correction of perceived wrongs through showy acts of physical violence. In a
classic formulation, the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers argued:
Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, 34â“5; Brandin, ed., Chanson dâ™Aspremont, 42â“3.
Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume dâ™Orange, 272; Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans, 496â“7.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 36â“7; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 45â“7; cf. p.
98; also see Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 29; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 55.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 230: â˜A, my lytyll son, thou haste murtherd thy modir! And
therefore I suppose thou that arte a murtherer so yonge, thow arte full lykly to be a manly man in
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 205; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 393.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Respect and precedence are paid to those who claim it and are sufď¬ciently powerful to
enforce their claim. Just as possession is said to be nine-tenths of the law, so the de facto
achievement of honour depends upon the ability to silence anyone who would dispute
Writing about the problem of violence in early modern England, the historian
Mervyn James similarly points to â˜the root of the matterâ™ in the concept of hon-
our, â˜emerging out of a long-established military and chivalric tradition . . .
characterized above all by a stress on competitive assertivenessâ™. As he notes
concisely, â˜Honour could both legitimize and provide moral reinforcement for
a politics of violence.â™109
We will ď¬nd ample evidence for investigating the politics of violence; the
ď¬erce physical competitiveness so characteristic of what anthropologists have
called honour cultures could scarcely be better illustrated than by extensive
reading in chivalric literature.110 As a code of honour, chivalry had as much
investment in knightly autonomy and heroic violence as in any forms of
restraint, either internal or external. Asked why there is strife between the
queenâ™s knights and the knights of the Round Table, Merlin answers in plain
terms: â˜You should know . . . that their jealousy has done that, and they want to
test their prowess against one another.â™ In the tournament held to celebrate the
wedding of Arthur and Guinevere, the knights â˜began hitting roughly, although
they were playing, because they were good knightsâ.111 The tournament turns
into a virtual battle, as do so many tournaments in chivalric literature.
Seeing unknown knights appearing prominently on another battleď¬eld ear-
lier in this same work, Yvonet the Great and Yvonet the Bastard wonder who
they can be. Aces of Beaumont gives them answer in hard, stirring words: â˜If
you want to know who they are, ride over to them and ď¬ght so well that they
ask you who you are! For it is by their valiant feats of arms that people know
who the worthies are.112
Pitt-Rivers, â˜Honour and Social Statusâ™, 24.
Mervyn James, â˜English politicsâ™, 308â“9.
110 Hostility is assumed when an unknown knight appears. E.g. Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I,
93; Carrol, tr., Lancelot Part II, 153; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 383; VIII, 145.
111 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 379, 335; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 382, 302. When
Arthur rebukes the knights they say that â˜they could not resist it, and they did not know where the
urge came fromâ™. Similarly, Arthur the Less defends his competitiveness in the Post Vulgate Quest;
chastised by Palamedes for going about, attacking knights and considering that courtesy, Arthur
You shouldnâ™t blame me if I go around attacking you and the other good knights, for Iâ™m a young man and a
new knight who needs to win praise and acclaim, and if I donâ™t win them now, when will I win them?
Asher, tr., 242; Magne, ed., Santa Graal II, 221.
Pickens, Story of Merlin, 273; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 194. Cf. Pickens, ibid., 232, 259,
287, 317, 359; Sommer, ibid., 119, 168, 220, 272, 347.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 151
Intense competition is sometimes shown, only to be criticized. Milun, in
Marie de Franceâ™s lay by that name, is so jealous of the much-praised prowess
of a young knight sweeping the tournament circuit that he searches him out
and engages in a ď¬ght â˜in order to do some harm to him and his reputationâ™;
though he thinks he will afterwards look for his long-lost son, he is, of course,
defeated in the joust by that very son.113 Knightly competition has edged out
affection and nearly brought tragic results. Chivalric competition in Marieâ™s
lay â˜Le Chaitivelâ™ does end tragically. When four knights in love with a lady
ď¬ght in a tournament, three are killed and one is castrated by a lance thrust.114
Yet competition and its results are usually accepted or even highly regarded.
A real man of prowess will bear the marks of other menâ™s weapons on his body
for life. Running nearly naked in the woods, mad, when he thinks he has lost
the queenâ™s love, Lancelot is recognized as a man of worship by those who see
him simply in terms of the scars left on his body from his ceaseless combat.115
Almost from the beginning of the classic Arthurian story, as told and retold
in the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Maloryâ™s Morte Darthur, the
rivalries and jealousies among the knights foreshadow the break-up of the
Round Table. Much of this strife originates, of course, in the ď¬erce hatreds
caused by so much killing (and a certain amount of sex) within a restricted
group of warriors and their ladies. Here, in Maloryâ™s words, is Gawainâ™s view,
at one point:
Fayre bretherne, here may ye se: whom that we hate kynge Arthure lovyth, and whom
that we love he hatyth. And wyte you well, my fayre bretherne, that this sir Lamerok
woll nevyr love us, because we slew his fadir, kynge Pellynor, for we demed that he slew
oure fadir, kynge Lotte of Orkenay; and for the deth of kynge Pellynor sir Lamerok ded
us a shame to our modir. Therefore I woll be revenged.116
Of course, Gawain and his brothers are revenged and the destructive feud
between the houses of Lot and Pellinore rolls on.
But the factionalism and competition in Arthurian stories often result from
simple and immediate jealousy, from resentment that someone else has won
worship. Gawain, while on the quest of the white hart, encounters two broth-
ers ď¬ghting, as one of them explains, â˜to preff which of us was the bygger
knyghtâ™.117 Tristram, or Lancelot, both of whom invariably ends up being â˜the
Hanning and Ferrante, trs, Marie de France, 171â“4; for their comments, see pp. 177â“80, and
Rychner, ed., Marie de France, 136â“40.
Hanning and Ferrante, Marie de France, 183â“4; Rychner, Marie de France, 145â“7.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 499. Ibid., 375.
Ibid., 64. In the Merlin Continuation (Asher, tr., 228â“9, Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, II,
81â“3) Gawain strongly denounces their ď¬ght as foolish and gets them, as a favour, to promise peace
in the future. Malory has Gawain more simply say that brother should not ď¬ght brother and then
threaten them with force if they disagree.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
bygger knyghtâ™, provoke endless jealousy, which is openly discussed.118 On the
queenâ™s urging, Lancelot is anxious to ď¬ght the Round Table in tournament:
â˜he was ď¬lled with joy, for he had often wanted to test himself against those
knights who had tested their own prowess against all comersâ™.119 Having just
witnessed Lancelot kill Tarquin, in the Morte Darthur, Gaheris pronounces
Lancelot the best knight in the world: he has just eliminated the second best.120
After Lancelot decapitates the wicked Meleagant with a great sword stroke in
the Lancelot, Kay similarly proclaims Lancelotâ™s well-earned status: â˜Ah, my
lord, we welcome you above all the other knights in the world as the ď¬‚ower of
earthly chivalry! You have proved your valour here and elsewhere.â™121
In the Lancelot Bors meets a knight (who turns out to be Agravain) who
stoutly asserts Lancelot is not the knight Gawain is. Their argument over who
is best ď¬ghter is, of course, settled by ď¬ghting. Bors unhorses his opponent,
and hacks him into a disabled state on the ground. When he refuses to surren-
der (â˜you will take nothing more of mine awayâ™), Bors hammers his head with
his sword pommel until blood spurts, pulls away the armour protecting the
knightâ™s throat, and prepares to deliver the fatal blow. Agravain, with an ugly
grimace, agrees Lancelot is the better knight.122
Bademagu leaves court in a huff when Tor gets a seat at the Round Table
before he does. Balin, during his brief perch on the top rung on the ladder of
prowess, wins so much worship that it generates reaction; after he alone can
pull the wondrous sword from its scabbard, Launceor, for example, â˜had grete
despite at Balin for the enchevynge of the swerde, that any sholde be
accompted more hardy or more of prouesseâ™. Balin and his brother Balaan,
when setting out to ď¬ght King Rion, intend to â˜preve oure worship and
prouesse upon hymâ™. Worship is won by prowess which is of necessity done
Danger, mounted and armed, lance at the ready, thus lurks along every for-
est path, in every glade, at every river ford. Knights must ride encased in their
metal as soon as they venture forth from the castles or hermitages in which
they shelter for the night; they must assume hostility from any other knights
whom they may meet. In the prose (Didot) version of the Perceval, the heroâ™s
sister describes this environment plainly:
Dear brother, I have great fear for you who go thus, for you are very young and the
See, for example, Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 411.
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 196; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 352â“3.
Vinaver, Malory. Works, 159. Numerous statements of this sort appear in the pages of
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 32; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 225.
Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 51; Micha, Lancelot, 179â“82.
Vinaver, Malory. Works, 81, 42, 44.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 153
knights who go through the land are so very cruel and wicked, and be sure that if they
can they will kill you in order to win your horse; but if you trust me, dear brother, you
will leave this endeavour upon which you are entered and will dwell with me, for it is
a great sin to kill a knight, and also you are each day in great danger of being killed.124
The author of the Perlesvaus suggests that after Percevalâ™s failure to ask the
right questions in his moment of trial, â˜all lands are now rent by war; no knight
meets another in a forest but he attacks him and kills him, if he canâ™.125
But is winning all? Is not ď¬ghting well just as honourable? The medieval
response to such questions seems somewhat unstable. Sometimes a text
speciď¬es that the honour of the loser has not been sullied. Palomides tells
Gareth, beaten in a joust in the tournament at Lonezep, that he has lost no
honour: â˜And worshypfully ye mette with hym, and neyther of you ar dishon-
oured.â™ No less an authority than Queen Guinevere declares ď¬‚atly, in Maloryâ™s
words, that â˜all men of worshyp hate an envyous man and woll shewe hym no
In fact, chivalric literature may declare it an honour to die from the blows of
a man of great prowess. Owein, dying in the Quest for the Holy Grail after
Gawain (not recognizing him) has put a spear into his chest, regards his death
as ď¬tting: â˜ âThen I set my death at naught,â said he, âif it comes at the hand
of so ď¬ne a knight as you.â â™127 Yvain the Bastard, similarly skewered by
Gawain in the Post-Vulgate Quest, dies with the same sentiment on his lips. An
unidentiď¬ed knight in this text demands a gift of Galahad: he wants Galahad
to kill him so that he can die by the hands of the greatest knight in the world.128
In the Lancelot, one of the opponents Lancelot defeats in the judicial combat
concerning the False Guinevere tells him, â˜I want to die by your hand, because
I couldnâ™t die by a better one.â™ Lancelot obliges him with a powerful sword
stroke cutting through helmet and skull, and down into the manâ™s spine.129
Yet winning is undoubtedly better, for all the fair words given to trying
oneâ™s best and losing like a gentleman. As Malory observes, â˜for oftetymes
thorow envy grete hardyness is shewed that hath bene the deth of many kyd
knyghtes; for thoughe they speke fayre many one unto other, yet whan they be
in batayle eyther wolde beste be praysed.â™130 Experienced knights such as
Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 28â“9. When (p. 30) her hermit uncle sees her coming with
Perceval, he assumes that this knight has seized and robbed her.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvans, 27; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 38.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 444, 466.
Matarasso, tr., Quest, 168; Pauphilet, Queste, 153â“4. Gawain is, of course, practising the
wrong kind of chivalry in the view of this text. But the sentiment expressed by Owein (in
Pauphilet, he is called Yvain) the Bastard retains its interest.
Asher, tr., Quest, 155, 125; Magne, ed., Demanda, I, 211, 57.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 272; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 140.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Charny and Malory know that even the most capable must expect to suffer
defeat in some ď¬ghts.131 If all bruises can thus be poulticed in defeat with the
knowledge of having fought well, however, winning decisively eliminates the
need. So many knights must have agreed with Maloryâ™s Palomides, who fre-
quently appears weeping and lamenting that when a great hero such as
Lancelot or Tristram is on the ď¬eld he can never win â˜worshyppeâ™.132
Characters who have been defeated in the initial, mounted ď¬ght with lances,
often declare that they have been â˜shamedâ™, and want a chance to win worship
on foot with sword and shield.133 At one point in the Lancelot no fewer than
sixty-four knights of the Round Table are forced by Arthur to admit that they
have been defeated by Lancelot in a tournament; equally bad, put on oath,
none can claim to have defeated him. Having been beaten by the best does not
soften their feelings, heightened by Arthurâ™s praise of Lancelot. The author
tells us: â˜These words of King Arthur so embarrassed the knights of the Round
Table that ever afterwards they hated Lancelot with a mortal hatred.â™134 The
hatred of the defeated is similarly directed against Bors, who has overcome
fourteen of Arthurâ™s court at the Forbidden Hill:
they were much more dismayed than before by the fact that they had been defeated by
Bors, who was but a youth, whereas some of them were old, experienced knights of
great strength; every one of them felt great sorrow and resentment in his heart because
they had been defeated by him, and that was one of the things for which they bore the
greatest rancour against Lancelotâ™s kindred.135
It is true that many knights in chivalric literature ď¬nd the choice between hon-
ourable defeat and death an easy decision; one after another saves his life at the
last moment as the victor stands over his prostrate body, sword ready for the
ď¬nal, decapitating stroke. Yet the truly heroic prefer to die without ever yielding,
without ever once having said â˜the loath wordâ™ of surrender. Blamour speaks in
just these terms to the triumphant Tristram, who has just defeated him:
Sir Trystrames de Lyones, I requyre the, as thou art a noble knyght and the beste
knyght that ever I founde, that thou wolt sle me oute, for I wolde nat lyve to be made
lorde of all the erthe; for I had lever dye here with worshyp than lyve here with shame.
And nedis, sir Trystrames, thou muste sle me, other ellys thou shalt never wynne the
fylde, for I woll never sey the lothe worde.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 133â“4.
For Charny, see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 130â“3; Vinaver, Malory. Works, 318.
Maloryâ™s Sir Dynadan gives the maxim, â˜he rydyth well that never felleâ™.
E.g. Vinaver, Malory. Works, 325, 419.
E.g. ibid., 355. Mark says to Lamerok, â˜I woll fyght wyth a swerde, for ye have shamed me
with a speare.â™
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 206; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 397.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 236; Micha, Lancelot, V, 112.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 155
Blamourâ™s brother, Bleoberis, agrees that â˜though sir Trystrames hath beatyn
his body, he hath nat beatyn his harte, and thanke God he is nat shamed this
dayâ™.136 In this view defeat rests in the fallible body, but shame is locked out of
an infallible heart.
A knight whom Tor defeats in the Merlin Continuation takes just this line:
â˜Certainly, Iâ™d rather die a hundred times, if that were possible,â™ he declares,
â˜than one single time to say or do something that looked like cowardice.â™ He
repeats his stand even after Tor ď¬‚attens him, driving the links of mail into his
head, even after Tor beats his head with the pommel of the sword, so that â˜he
made the blood ď¬‚ow all down his faceâ™.137
A conversation between the Lady of the Lake and the young Lancelot (in the
Lancelot do Lac and Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle) may well be, as Elspeth
Kennedy has suggested, the fountainhead for all later discussions about bal-
ance between prowess and other qualities in chivalry. Responding to his ladyâ™s
Socratic questions, Lancelot says:
It seems to me that a man can have the qualities of the heart even if he cannot have those
of the body, for a man can be courteous and wise and gracious and loyal and valorous
and generous and courageousâ”all these are virtues of the heartâ”though he cannot be
big and robust and agile and handsome and attractive; all these things, it seems to me,
are qualities of the body, and I believe that a man brings them with him out of his
motherâ™s womb when he is born.138
Here the ideal qualities of the chivalrous are pressed to the fore, and prowessâ”
competitive, bloody work with edged weaponsâ”is veiled in softening and
restraining virtues, as it is, again, when the Lady of the Lake tells Lancelot
about the origins of chivalry. Each of the ď¬rst knights, she says, knew:
[that he] should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compas-
sionate towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and
prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or
hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 256.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 236â“7; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 247â“8. The sentiment is
bold, but the defeated knight suddenly loses resolve. A maiden appears to whom Tor grants a
favour: she wants the knightâ™s head; Tor (though the knight now pleads for his life from the
maiden) swings so stoutly that the manâ™s head ď¬‚ies six feet from his body.
Quotation from Corin Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 51; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do
Lac, I, 141. Cf. Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 59; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 248.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
â˜A knightâ™, she says, summing up, â˜should not, for fear of death, do anything
which can be seen as shameful; rather he should be more afraid of shame than
of suffering death.â™ She then proceeds elaborately to explain the signiď¬cance of
knightly arms and armour in terms of desirable qualities, especially protecting
the Holy Church.139
All of the great issues, all of the tensions and paradoxes, lie just out of sight
in this splendid discourseâ”just beneath the surface here and echoed in famous
books by Geoffroi de Charny and Ramon Llull.140 Knights are presented as the
righteous armed force of Christendom, the practitioners of licit force, the fair
judges in society, wise men motivated and restrained by high ideals, bravely
avoiding shame. Courtesy, generosity, the strong helping the weak against
robbers and killersâ”such ideals resonate as much today as they did eight cen-
Yet we need to remember how much these are reform ideas, prescriptive
rather than descriptive. We know they do not describe how knights actually
behaved. The evidence as a whole shows a core ideal of prowess, belief in sheer
aptitude with arms, animated by courage, mildly, ideally, tempered by reason,
wise restraint, and strategic pragmatism.
After he has seen Lancelot perform on the battleď¬eld, Galehaut ď¬nally man-
ages to meet him for the ď¬rst time, and to ask him who he is. Lancelot replies:
â˜Good sir, I am a knight, as you can see.â™ â˜ âIndeedâ, said Galehaut, âa knight
you are, the best there is, and the man I would most wish to honour in all the
world.â â™141 Galehaut has seen prowess personiď¬ed. It has manifested itself in
almost miraculous work with ashen lance and sharp-edged sword. The battle-
ď¬eld is strewn with slashed and mangled bodies lying in bloody proof. The vast
body of literature about Lancelot regularly takes just such work as its focusâ”
not all of the other ď¬ne qualities so praised by the Lady of the Lake. We are
tirelessly shown Lancelot thrusting lance and swinging sword, not Lancelot
defending the personnel and tithes of Mother Church or playing the fair judge.
What other characters in the romances praise repeatedly is his awe-inspiring
ď¬ghting, not abstract ideals.142
We have already considered evidence showing the fear inspired by the estate
of medieval warriors, often expressed with prudent indirection. Open devalu-
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 52â“6; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142â“5;
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 59â“61; Micha, ed., Lancelot, 248â“58.
See discussion in Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 67, 69â“74.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 135; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 320. This formula
is repeated in the Post-Vulgate Quest of the Holy Grail. Tristan, who has seen Galahadâ™s prowess
in a tournament, asks him to identify himself. â˜Iâ™m a knightâ™, Galahad says simply. â˜I know quite
well that youâ™re a knightâ™, Tristan responds, â˜and youâ™re the best in the worldâ™: Asher, tr., Quest,
217; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 484.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 157
ations of prowess are rare, indeed, but a writer like Walter Map is capable of
at least declaring it morally neutral. â˜Goodness only makes a man goodâ™, he
writes; â˜prowess makes him either.â™143 An intensely religious knight such as Sir
John Clanvowe could stand traditional chivalric values on end:
ffor byfore God alle vertue is worsshipe and alle synne is shame. And in tis world it is
euene te reuers, ffor te world holt hem worsshipful tat been greete werreyours and
ď¬ghteres and tat distroyen and wynnen manye loondis.
(for in Godâ™s sight all virtue is worship and all sin is shame. But the world always
reverses this, for the world holds as worshipful those who have been great warriors and
ď¬ghters who destroy and win many lands.)144
The tension between sheer prowess and the restraint of reason or wisdom
animates major texts, most famously in the Song of Roland. â˜Roland is full of
prowess, Oliver of wisdomâ™, sings the author of that text, as he unfolds for his
audience the complex consequences.145 Raoul de Cambrai more than once
warns that â˜an unbridled man passes his days in sorrowâ™.146 Near its end The
Story of Merlin pointedly praises a Roman leader as â˜a very good knight, wor-
thy and boldâ™, who â˜knew how to fall back and turn about, and . . . knew how
to storm in among foesâ™.147 Malory, through Sir Tristram, says that â˜manhode
is nat worthe but yf hit be medled with wysdomeâ™.148 The wise Pharian tells his
nephew, Lambegue, in Lancelot, â˜almost never do we see great intelligence and
great prowess lodged together in a youth. And it is true that for your age you
have unusual prowess, enough, in fact, to dim your view of wisdom.â™149 Yet we
should note that he goes on to urge unbridled prowess in the right situations,
matched by quiet restraint in council:
The household of two hermits term Lancelot â˜the valiant man, who by his chivalry made all
the world tremble before himâ™: Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 69; Bogdanow, ed., â˜Folie
Lancelotâ™, 45. Earlier, the ladies on the Island of Joy witnessed Lancelot unhorse a good challenger
so forcefully that the manâ™s neck is nearly broken and he faints in agony. Their response is to bow,
sing, and dance before his shield, and proclaim him the best knight of the world. Asher, 78;
Bogdanow, 70. A maiden late in the Perlesvaus tells her lady he is â˜the violent Lancelot who killed
your brother. It is no lie that he is one of the ď¬nest knights in the world, but because of the vigour
and worth of his chivalry he has committed many an outrage.â™ Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 201; Nitze
and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 312.
143 M. R. James, ed., tr., Walter Map, 416â“17.
144 Scattergood, ed., Sir John Clanvowe, 69.
145 â˜Rollant est proz e Oliver est sageâ™, the opening line of laisse 87, in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson
146 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses, 24, 104; and see the related sentiment in laisse 90.
147 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, I, 406; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 434.
148 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 428.
149 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 36; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 151â“2. Cf. Meyer, ed., Girart de
Roussillon, 94ff: Girart says to his nephew, â˜Beau neveu, vous ĂŞtes preux; votre ardeur juvĂ©nile
serait bonne, si vous aviez la sagesse.â™
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
in battle or combat or in lists where the ď¬nest knights are gathered, take care to stand
aside for no one, whether younger than yourself or older, but spur your horse on before
all the others and strike the best blow you can. When it comes to arms, you see, no man
need yield to young or old to gain fame and honor; but in important deliberations
young men should attend to their elders. The truth is that there is great honor in dying
boldly and bravely in combat, but only shame and reproach can come from foolish
speech and thoughtless counsel.150
King Bademagu takes another corrective line on prowess as he tells his evil son
Meleagant, jealous of Lancelot and anxious to ď¬ght, that â˜size of body and
limbs is not what makes a good knight, but greatness of heartâ™.151
Even in those passages that praise some heroâ™s prowess interesting elements
of doubt, or at least cautionary lines of thought, put in an appearance. Gawain
twice fails to have a transforming experience (in the Lancelot) when the Grail
comes into his presence: once he cannot keep his eyes off the beautiful maiden
carrying it and, in recompense, is not served; the second time he is so worn out
with ď¬ghting a mysterious knight in the hall of the Grail castle that he is lying,
wounded and almost in a stupor on the ď¬‚oor. Through the very presence of
the Grail heals his wounds, he fails to recognize it. A hermit tells him later that
his failure was â˜[b]ecause you were not humble and simpleâ™.152
In the Lancelot ď¬ve sons of a duke, ď¬ghting their father, convince Lancelot
by lies to join their side. He characteristically goes to work â˜killing whatever he
hitâ™, and wins the day, even sending the dukeâ™s head ď¬‚ying with one of his great
sword strokes. He is greeted with the usual effusive celebration in the winnerâ™s
castle as â˜the best knight in the worldâ™. Yet, the text tells us, this victory was a
pity, for Lancelot has been ď¬ghting on the wrong side, against members of the
Round Table who were aiding the duke.153
We can only wonder at the way in which, with or without conscious intent,
authors give us curiously shaded descriptions of Lancelot and other heroes in
full battle fury. Lancelot is not only compared to a raptor, a wolf, or lion, but
more than once to an â˜evil demonâ™, â˜the Devil himself â™, â˜Death itself â™. Bors and
even Perceval can likewise be termed â˜demonâ™.154 William of Palerne is
described by enemies who feel the force of his chivalry as â˜sum devel degised
tat dot al tis harm (some disguised devil who does all this harm)!â™155
Balainâ™s great prowess likewise produces deep ambivalence. The Merlin
Continuation asserts that Balain was the most praised knight on a battleď¬eld,
for â˜he practised a chivalry so expert, wherever he went, that everybody
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 36; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 151â“2.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 260; Micha, Lancelot, I, 87.
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 100â“2; Micha, Lancelot, II, 376â“88.
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 152â“3; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 159â“64.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 159
watched him marvellingâ™. Wondering observers, however, say he is no
mortal, but a â˜monsterâ™ or â˜devilâ™. Even King Arthur said that â˜he was not a
knight like other mortal knights, but a man born on earth for human destruc-
Those who would reform chivalry knew that they had to come to terms
with prowess. They all hoped to channel or change the force and energy of
this great virtue. Some even harboured futile hopes of substituting another
quality in the uppermost slot. But prowess holds centre stage; it is essential
to the chivalry with which the reformer must deal, however he or she wants
to channel or change it. A layman lacking prowess might show other quali-
ties in the textbook chivalric list; but at least in the realm of chivalric litera-
ture no one would particularly notice, because no one would particularly
care. The chief virtue must come ď¬rst. It is probable that complex ď¬gures in
chivalric literature, such as Roland himself, or even darker ď¬gures, such as
Raoul in Raoul de Cambrai, Claudas in the Lancelot do Lac, or Caradoc in
Lancelot, were so interesting to their contemporaries in medieval society
because of the tension between their admirable prowess and other qualities
warped or missing in them.157
We must recognize how strongly chivalric literature acknowledges the
impulse to settle any issueâ”especially any perceived affront to honourâ”by
couching the lance for the charge or swiftly drawing the sword from the scab-
bard. Force is regularly presented as the means of getting whatever is wanted,
of settling whatever is at issue.158 Accusations of a more or less judicial nature,
of course, lead to a ď¬ght, as does assertion of better lineage. But so does asser-
tion that oneâ™s lady is fairer than another knightâ™s lady, a request for a knightâ™s
name or even an answer to the question, â˜Why are you so sad?â™ Of course, as
often as not the ď¬ght is over no stated question at all, but simply seems a part
of the natural order of the imagined world of chivalry: two knights meet in the
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 160, 198, 204; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 193, 359â“61, 388; VI, 150,
160, 195â“6; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 315, 317, 326; Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 104;
Bogdanow, ed., â˜Folie Lancelotâ™, 139.
Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, l. 3888.
156 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 197; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 107â“8.
Claudas, has, for example, given up love and shows no interest in largesse; his loyalty clearly
leaves something to be desired. Yet he is elaborately praised by Pharian as the ď¬nest knight in the
world. Rosenberg, tr. Lancelot Part I, 34; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 78. Caradoc is
described as â˜the cruelest and most disloyal of all men who had ever borne armsâ™. Yet he is also â˜of
great prowess and strength beyond measureâ™: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 282. Micha,
Lancelot, I, 182â“3. Raoul de Cambrai will be discussed in Chapter 11.
HonorĂ© Bonet provides an instructive list of foolish reasons why knights ď¬ght: over which
country has the best wine or the most beautiful women, which country has the best soldiers, which
man has the better horse, the more loving wife, the greater success in love, more skill in dancing
or ď¬ghting: see Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 207.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
forest, they ď¬ght.159 The vast and complex literature of chivalry celebrates
knightly violence even as it attempts to reform or deď¬‚ect it into channels where
it would produce less social damage.
Classic examples from Malory: Sir Pelleas â˜wente thereas the lady Ettarde was and gaff her
the cerclet and seyde opynly she was the fayreste lady that there was, and that wolde he preve
uppon only knyght that wolde sey nayâ™: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 100. Sir Gareth asserts to the
Black Knight that he has a higher lineage, â˜and that woll I preve on they body!â™ (p. 185). The King
of Ireland, summoned to Arthurâ™s court on a charge of treasonous murder, decides â˜there was
none other remedy but to answere hym knyghtlyâ™ (p. 252). Pellinor, wanting to know Tristramâ™s
name, decides he will â˜make hym to telle me hys name, other he shall dye thereforeâ™ (p. 314). Sent
by Arthur to discover why a passing knight is sorrowful, Balain tells this knight, â˜I pray you make
you redy, for ye muste go with me othir ellis I muste fyght with you and brynge you by forceâ™
KNIGHTHOOD IN ACTION
S I N C E the greatest opportunity for exercising prowess was war, a delight
in war becomes an important corollary to the worship of prowess at the
centre of chivalric ideology. Such an emphasis raises fascinating if difď¬cult ques-
tions. Did knights love war so fully they could engage in it without fear? Does
chivalric literature accurately portray their conduct of war? Did their chivalric
ideas and ideals modify warfare, making it a somewhat kinder, gentler enter-
prise? Does chivalric literature accommodate any countercurrent voices for
peace? If chivalric literature praises loyalty, to what were knights loyal?
A Delight in War and Tournament
If Geoffroi de Charny, the renowned warrior and theoretician of chivalry in
mid-fourteenth-century France, praised war as the ultimate chivalric enter-
prise, he echoed an even more enthusiastic and unrestrained voice sounded
nearly two centuries earlier in the poetry of Bertran de Born. Bertranâ™s glow-
ing account of the coming of spring quickly modulates into praise for the joys
of displaying prowess in war:
The gay time of spring pleases me well, when leaves and ď¬‚owers come; it pleases me
when I hear the merriment of the birds making their song ring through the wood; it
pleases me when I see tents and pavilions pitched on the meadows; and I feel great hap-
piness, when I see ranged on the ď¬elds knights and horses in armour.
And it pleases me too when a lord is ď¬rst to the attack on his horse, armed, without
fear; for thus he inspires his men with valiant courage. When the battle is joined, each
man must be ready to follow him with pleasure, for no one is respected until he has
taken and given many blows.
I tell you, eating or drinking or sleeping hasnâ™t such savour for me as the moment I
hear both sides shouting â˜Get â™em!â™ and I hear riderless horses crashing through the
shadows, and I hear men shouting â˜Help! Help!â™ and I see the small and the great falling
in the grassy ditches, and I see the dead with splintered lances, decked with pennons,
through their sides.1
Paden et al., eds, Poems of the Troubadour, 338â“43.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
In abbreviated form, this sentiment appears again in the thirteenth-century
Story of Merlin:
Mild weather had come back with the pleasant season when the orchards and wood-
lands are in leaf, when the birds sing sweetly and softly and the blossoming, leafy forests
ring with their singing, when the meadows are thick with grass and the gentle waters
go back into their bedsâ”and when it is better to make war than any other time of the
â˜Peaceâ™, as Maurice Keen notes concisely, â˜was not regarded in the middle
ages as the natural condition of states.â™3 Writing to the French king Charles VI
in 1387, HonorĂ© Bonet observed that â˜it is no great marvel if in this world there
arise wars and battles, since they existed ď¬rst in heavenâ™.4 Explicit assertions
that the coming of peace saddened the knights, that they preferred war, appear
throughout chivalric literature. When peace is made between Arthur and
Galehaut in the Lancelot do Lac and the Lancelot, â˜[m]any, who preferred war,
were saddened by thisâ™.5 Of course, some of the motives of actual knights may
have been purely economic, stemming from their need for booty; but usually
it is the delight in prowess that is openly praised.6 In the First Continuation of
the Perceval, a knight announces, â˜my name is Disnadaret: Iâ™m much more
fond of war than peace, and never tire of doing battle.â™7 Boson in Girart de
Roussillon is described as a man whose â˜taste for warâ™ is â˜always newâ™.8 The
author of the Middle English romance William of Palerne relates of the young
hero William, newly knighted, that there â˜was no glader gom tat ever God
madeâ™ when he learned of an impending war between the Roman Emperor
and the Duke of Saxony.9 When Claudas announces that war with Arthur is
coming, â˜The good and bold knights were happy and joyful at this, for they felt
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 309; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 256
Keen, Laws of War, 23.
4 Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 81. Bonet refers, of course, to Satanâ™s rebellion and soon also
discusses the wars chronicled in the Old Testament. He is, in fact, deeply troubled by the issue of
war and divine will. He argues (pp. 118â“19) that peace is all but impossible, that war is built into
the stars, men, and animals, though he admits God might be able to bring about peace and that
good men can be lords over the power of heavenly bodies. Yet he soon declares that God, as lord
and governor of battles, has instituted war, that it is in accord with all law, human and divine, and
that soldiers are the ď¬‚ails of Godâ™s righteous (if hidden) justice (pp. 125â“6, 157).
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 138; Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 328; Sommer, Vulgate Version,
In Girart de Roussillon (Meyer, ed., tr.) the problem with ending the war is seen in the plight
of poor knights. How will they live without war? The answer is easily found in a new war, not of
Christian versus Christian, but against the pagans. See laisse 633. Again, in laisse 672, the solution
for knights who want to prove their worth is clear: let them ď¬ght pagans.
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 114. Cf. Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 116â“17, 244â“5, 262â“3,
298â“9, 364â“5 (â˜A peace such as this does not enhance prowess, nor any other peaceâ™), 372â“3, 398â“9,
460â“1; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 296.
Meyer, Girart de Roussillon, laisse 474. Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, l. 1092.
Knighthood in Action 163
they had been at peace too long. But it grieved the mean-spirited and the cow-
ardly, who preferred peace to war.â™10
The sentiment is often repeated. Knights in the twelfth-century Chanson
Gaydon â˜have no desire to make peace, they have always heard the war-cry, and
they love war more than Nones or Compline. They would rather one town
burned than two cities surrendered without a struggle.â™11 Classic warrior
speeches urging immediate and vigorous war against the Romans are given to
the notables of Arthurâ™s court by Geoffrey of Monmouth (in his History of the
Kings of Britain), and by Lawman (in the Brut).12 The theme of warriors laud-
ing war was venerable on this side of the Channel, as on the other.13
If knights liked piling up honour and the material rewards of battle, at least
some of them also sensed an aesthetic element in war. The author of The Story
of Merlin, shortly after he had declared spring as being the best time for war,
pictured Arthur and his knights after they had rampaged in near darkness
through the encampment of their enemies, in the campaign to relieve the siege
of Trebes: â˜Then it was broad daylight and the sun began to rise. The sun
shone on the armour, which ď¬‚ashed in the light, and it was so beautiful and
pleasing to look at that it was a delight and a melody to watch.â™14 In this text,
as in many others, the author wants his readers to see colourful banners, rich
pavilions and costly armour. The biographer of Robert Bruce similarly pauses
to admire the massed English chivalry at the outset of the battle of Loudon
Hill in 1307; the morning sunlight gleamed on shields and polished helmets:
their spears, pennons and shields illuminated the entire ď¬eld with light, their best and
embroidered bright banners and various horse trappings and varied coat armour and
hauberks that were white as ď¬‚our made them glisten as if they were angels from
Yet the text may bring such trappings into view just as sword strokes and lance
thrusts destroy them.16 Peter Haidu has made the interesting suggestion that
we are observing a celebration of conspicuous consumption in the wanton
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 288; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 42. Later in this same work
Mordred, in a conversation with Kay, denounces the young Perceval: â˜He looks like a simple
knight . . . who prefers peace to war.â™ Kay agrees, noting that Percevalâ™s shield bears no signs of
ď¬ghting: Carroll, ibid., 325; Micha, ibid., 192.
Ll. 4802 ff, quoted in Daniel, Heroes and Saracens, 26.
Thorpe, tr., Geoffrey of Monmouth, 231â“5; Allen, tr., Lawman, Brut, ll. 12426â“50.
For a survey of views in Middle English literature, see Gist, Love and War, 113â“46, 194.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 311; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 261.
McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbourâ™s Bruce, II, ll. 220â“34.
The Song of Roland and the poetry of Bertran de Born provide splendid examples. In â˜Lo coms
mâ™a mandat e mogutâ™, for example, Bertran writes, â˜And nothing will keep splinters from ď¬‚ying to
the sky, or taffeta and brocade and samite from ripping, and ropes and tents and stakes and shel-
ters and high-pitched pavilionsâ™: in Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 108â“9.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
destruction of so much ď¬nery; in a society in which few could even imagine
such extravagance, the knights can not only wear and use ď¬ne and costly cloth-
ing and equipment, they can destroy it in the great game of war.17
If the great game was not always and everywhere available for knights to
hone and demonstrate their prowess, tournament was available, even in the
absence of war, as scholars regularly point out; it became the great sport and,
in time, the great social event of chivalry.18
Early tournaments made good substitutes for war, and in both literature
and life the tournament which quickly warmed up to the temperature of bat-
tle appears prominently.19 Tournaments were at ď¬rst distinguished from war
only in the prearranged nature of the combat, an absence of deliberate destruc-
tion visited on non-combatants, and the provision of some safe zones from the
ď¬ghting in which knights could rest and recover. Otherwise, the knightsâ”and
accompanying bodies of footmenâ”ranged over the countryside, and some-
times through narrow urban streets, manoeuvring, ambushing, attacking at
will. Even though tournaments gradually restricted their scope and functioned
by ever clearer forms and rules, there can be little wonder that they were
known as â˜schools of prowessâ™.20
The place of tournament in knightly ideology will likewise be evident to any
reader of chivalric literature. From the time of ChrĂ©tien de Troyes in the last
quarter of the twelfth century, descriptions of magniď¬cent tournaments ď¬ll
page after page of chivalric romance; they have become settings around which
plots turned, events in reď¬ned literature demanded by reď¬ned audiences.
Those who heard or read these works evidently could not have enough of
colourful display and valorous action. In a splendid instance of art and life
playing leapfrog, the imagined becomes the actual; the actual outdoes even the
imagined.21 Each great occasion must be decorated with its magniď¬cent tour-
nament; each peerless knight errant wandering on some erratic orbit out of
touch with the solar centre of the court can only be brought home by his
admirers spreading news of a great and tempting tournament. â˜No knight
should avoid a tournament if he can get there in timeâ™, is the straightforward
advice of an honourable vavasour in the Lancelot.22
Haidu, Subject of Violence, 46â“9.
For general discussions, see Barber and Barker, Tournaments and Keen, Chivalry, 83â“102.
For dangers associated with historical tournaments, see Barker and Barker, Tournaments,
139â“49. A tournament of 1273 became known as the â˜Little war of Chalonsâ™: Prestwich, Edward I,
84â“5. Classic literary examples in Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 302â“7; Pickens, tr., Story of
Merlin, 335â“54. Literature sees dangers to the knightly caste and courtly society, rather than to the
See citations in Keen, Chivalry, 99.
See the discussion in Benson, â˜The Tournamentâ™.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 259; Micha, ed., Lancelot, V, 216.
Knighthood in Action 165
For nearly half a millennium (and increasingly before an audience featuring
women as well as men), tournaments become a stock feature of chivalric life
both as lived and as portrayed in literature: horse hoofs pound, lances splinter,
shields crack, swords bite into helmetsâ”in a continuum of tourneying that
blurs chivalric ideology and practice. Passionate belief in tournament as the
ideal sport unquestionably ď¬gures as one line in the creed spoken by those who
worshipped at the high altar of prowess.
Any real disparity between historical events and literary portrayals appears
when literary texts ignore the gradual safeguards that knights actually used,
especially blunted weapons for combats Ă plaisir, instead of the sharp lance
heads of combats Ă outrance. Literary tournaments are potentially deadly
affairs, with no hint of rebated weapons, perhaps to emphasize the sense of
danger and the vigour of the combatants.
The Fact of Fear? Voices for Peace?
Did they ever play the game, whether in war or tournament, with sweaty
palms and shaking hands? In any sane person the prospect of being wounded,
maimed, or killed with edged weapons in ď¬erce combat would surely produce
to some degree the phenomenon of fear. That warriors in all ages have experi-
enced and more or less mastered these fears we can take as given. Replacing
fear with gritty endurance and courage or even converting it into steel-edged
battle fury must be a prime goal of any successful warrior culture.23 High
praise for honour secured through prowess and larded with visions of loot is
the ideological path usually taken. Yet the tensions are obvious. If knights sel-
dom left any record of their intimate thoughts, chivalric literature allows us
occasionally to hear amidst the trumpet-calls the small but insistent voice of
fear.24 As a battle waxes ď¬erce, we learn that â˜even the bravest were afraid (li
plus hardis ot paĂśr)â™.25 The Chanson de Guillaume shows a warrior so fearful that
his loose bowels have soiled his saddle blanket.26 More traditional historical
sources make the same point. The Song of Dermot and the Earl, written at about
the turn of the thirteenth century, tells a chilling tale of two armies encamped
at night near Wexford in Ireland, expecting battle on the morrow. Suddenly a
His biographer tells us the late fourteenth-century Castilian knight Don Pero NiĂ±o was
instructed as a youth to emulate St James, whose body was chopped bit by bit, but who steadfastly
refused to renounce his faith: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 20â“1. Geoffroi de Charny
regularly praises steady endurance: see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry. With an eye to
German chivalric literature and to the distinction between the world and the court, Stephen Jaeger
discusses fear in â˜Sociology of Fearâ™.
See the discussion in Verbruggen, Art of Warfare, 43 ff.
Roche-Mahdi, ed., tr., Silence, l. 5464.